Inventing Traditions

There has been an onslaught of news about traditions, including debates over whether certain traditions are, in fact, traditional or whether people have invented them recently based on a shared sense of the past.

The concept of inventing tradition is not new. A book written in 1983, The Invention of Tradition, gives many examples of invented tradition. It points out that many rituals carried out by the British royal family are less than 100 years old. Here’s another example: While U.S presidents originally delivered the State of the Union address in person in front of Congress, Thomas Jefferson invented a tradition of delivering it in writing via messenger – a tradition that lasted for over a century until Woodrow Wilson again went in front of Congress in 1913. This address wasn’t even called by its now-traditional name, the State of the Union, until  the 1934; before that, the tradition was to call it the Annual Message.

In marketing, of course, we’ve made a living out of inventing tradition. Examples:

  • If you take a coffee break today, you’re participating in a tradition invented by the Pan American Coffee Bureau in the 1940s to, ahem, make coffee great again.
  • When I say Santa Clause, you might think of the traditional chubby man in a red suit with rosy cheeks guiding a sleigh pulled by reindeer. You can thank Coca-Cola for that image; since 1931, the company has helped define what Christmas looks like.
  • If you’re considering spending the traditional three months’ salary on an engagement ring for your significant other, you can thank De Beers for that brilliant marketing campaign.
  • For all you content strategists out there, consider the word “like.” It turns out, we’re not the first generation to change the definition of that word. In 1954, Winston ran an ad reading “Tastes great like a cigarette should” as opposed to “as a cigarette should.” They received hateful letters, editorials, and other protests because of the grammatical error of using “like” as a conjunction. Walter Cronkite even refused to read the copy on air. Eventually, Merriam Webster changed the definition of the word “like” to include the common usage as a conjunction, citing the Winston ad as a reason for making the change.

Of course, all traditions are invented. Every tradition, at some point, wasn’t one. Someone slid the first dime under a kid’s pillow in exchange for a tooth. Someone sent the first Valentine’s Day card. Someone was the first to go to work on a Friday dressed casually. All of those traditions, by the way, came from marketers.

What’s the point?  The point is, as marketers, as communicators, as content creators, this is our job. Creating culture and inventing tradition is what we aim to do. At least it can be. When we introduce something into the culture – when we invent a tradition – we have an opportunity to hit a new high, to have a positive impact. 

Twenty or thirty years from now, imagine people up in arms about leaving out the traditional emoji from digital communications. Imagine a group upset about the dismantling of the traditional hashtag. Imagine wedding-goers lamenting that there’s not a blasted thing in sight that’s old, borrowed, or blue. Imagine protests against the removal of the tradition of testing of children’s knowledge retention in order to pass school. Imagine a day when the tradition of physically attending a university has faded away.

Traditions, and the monuments to them, can be important. They reflect the culture we have made. They remind us of shared history. They define our past, shape who we are today, and help determine who we will become.

That last part is the key. Humans are always inventing traditions and dismantling them. Redefining our traditions is, you might say, the most traditional tradition of all. When we dismantle a tradition, we do so because of who we have the opportunity to become. The traditions that stand the test of time remain not just because “it has always been this way” (it hasn’t) but because of who we have become.

For those of us that want to shape culture and invent tradition, our responsibility is to be good stewards of both who we are as a culture and who we want to be.

 

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.